To use voiceover… or not to use voiceover. That is the question.
Voiceover is one of the most hotly debated topics in the screenwriting world, probably because there are multiple ways it can be used.
While some screenwriters are vehemently against it, if used well, voiceover can actually enhance a story in interesting ways. So let’s look at three different ways you can use voiceover in your script.
As Interior Monologue
Unlike novelists, screenwriters can’t typically get into their characters' heads. But voiceover allows you to do just that.
Using voiceover as interior monologue means that you can reveal a character’s inner thoughts, feelings, and opinions without having them voice those things to the other characters in the story.
A great example of this kind of voiceover can be seen in the movie Fight Club. Throughout the story, the audience is treated to a near-constant stream of interior monologue narration from the Narrator. This voiceover defines the tone of the entire movie and is one of the reasons it’s so memorable.
It’s actually because of the voiceover that the big twist at the end of Fight Club comes as such a gut punch — we think the Narrator is telling us the truth because he’s speaking with authority in the first-person, but in actuality, he’s an unreliable narrator.
To see how the voiceovers in Fight Club were written, check out the script here.
As Non-Diegetic Commentary
Some novels have third-person narrators — narrators who aren’t involved in the story but have enough knowledge of the goings-on of the story that they’re the ones telling it to the reader.
In the same way, some films feature a narrator who speaks to the audience through voiceover but never appears on screen. This type of voiceover is non-diegetic, meaning that it has no root in the action that takes place in the story.
Non-diegetic voiceover functions the same on the page as it does on the screen — it allows someone to impart information about the story without interrupting the action of the story itself.
For example, in About Time, Tim leads the audience through the story with non-diegetic narration about his family, career, search for love, and time-traveling abilities. We never see him speak any part of this narration on-screen, but we know it’s him because he’s the protagonist in the story.
Most often the non-diegetic narrator is a character somehow involved in the story, but every once in a while, a movie comes around that has a true third-person narrator.
(500) Days of Summer features one such third-person omniscient narrator. The audience never learns the identity of this all-knowing narrator, but he is an integral part of the experience of the movie. You can download the script here if you want to see what this looks like.
As Diegetic Storytelling
We humans tell stories all the time — it’s sort of our thing. So it only makes sense that the characters in movies we watch tell stories too.
But the thing about telling stories is that it’s not very visually engaging. It’s one thing to hear a character tell a story, it’s another entirely to see that story play out on screen. This is where voiceover comes in.
A character can start telling a story in a scene, and then the screenwriter can continue that story in voiceover while showing what happened in a flashback.
It’s a little hard to explain in writing, but it’s something done in movies and TV all the time. For a perfect example, check out this clip from the beginning of National Treasure.
This kind of voiceover is known as diegetic, meaning that it has a root in the action of the movie and isn’t disembodied (even if we can’t see the speaker at all times).
Ben’s grandfather tells the story of the Templar’s Treasure while the audience gets to see what he’s talking about on the screen in a series of flashbacks. After all, seeing knights fight over treasure is much more interesting than watching Christopher Plummer tell the story in its entirety. Download the script for National Treasure to explore diegetic voiceover.
While these three uses of voiceover may be the most common, there are plenty of other ways to employ voiceover in your script.
You could have an on-screen narrator like A Series of Unfortunate Events, use voiceover to bookend your story like Christopher Nolan does in The Prestige, have various characters speak in voiceover like Election, or have an in-story narrator speak in voiceover to another character in the story (ahem… Stranger than Fiction).
When it comes to voiceover, the possibilities are endless. But before you write V.O in your script, make sure you’re using voiceover for a good reason.
If you’re considering using voiceover in your screenplay, check out our Guide to Narration and Voiceover.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.